Dillan Johnson and his family knew they needed to make a tough decision after a whirlwind weekend at Northwestern ultimately led to the firing of longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald on Monday.
Johnson, a senior at Joliet Catholic, watched all weekend as allegations of hazing that involved coerced sexual acts and a “culture of enabling racism” became public. Once the university fired Fitzgerald, Johnson saw it as a sign it was time to move on.
Johnson decommitted from the Wildcats and committed to Wisconsin on Wednesday.
“I’m sad to have to decommit and everything, but the way things are happening right now at the school, everything looks chaotic right now,” Johnson said. “Really, I had to make a decision for my own interests, because I don’t even know what’s happening right now at Northwestern.”
The whirlwind weekend started Friday when Northwestern originally suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks after an investigation did not find sufficient evidence that the coaching staff knew about the alleged hazing within the program. The report did say there were “significant opportunities” for them to learn about it, however.
The Daily Northwestern then released a story Saturday where a former player detailed how some of the hazing the university investigated involved coerced sexual acts. The player also told The Daily that Fitzgerald may have known the hazing took place.
The Daily published another story Monday where three former players described a “culture of enabling racism” and gave details of multiple racist actions and remarks from both the coaching staff and players. Northwestern president Michael Schill reversed course Monday by firing Fitzgerald.
Johnson was completely surprised by the allegations. He visited the Evanston campus numerous times, where he talked with coaches and players, and he said he never picked up a hint of what the allegations suggest has been taking place.
“It was all completely new to me when I heard it,” Johnson said. “I had no idea what was happening, to be honest. I’m completely in the dark with everything.”
He talked with Wildcats defensive line coach Christian Smith, he said, but didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the other coaches. Johnson and his family decided to reopen his commitment and reached out to Wisconsin, which was another top choice before Johnson committed to Northwestern in May.
“I’m sad to have to decommit and everything, but the way things are happening right now at the school, everything looks chaotic right now. Really, I had to make a decision for my own interests, because I don’t even know what’s happening right now at Northwestern.”— Dillan Johnson, Joliet Catholic senior
The family considered other schools such as Iowa State and Missouri, but ultimately decided Wisconsin was the best place to go.
“It really made sense to go there,” Johnson said. “It made the most sense to go to Wisconsin at this point.”
Johnson became the third commit from the Class of 2024 to decommit after the weekend. Washington’s Payton Stewart and South Carolina’s Julius Tate both decommitted Tuesday night.
The decommitment comes after many of the 21 players listed on the team’s spring roster from the Chicago area either posted on Twitter or shared someone else’s post in support of Fitzgerald. Some also retweeted posts calling out Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg for allegedly informing the team of Fitzgerald’s firing over Zoom in a statement without taking questions.
Marist alumnus Deuce McGuire and Maine South alumnus Chris Petrucci each shared their thoughts after the allegations surfaced. McGuire retweeted a statement in support of Fitzgerald and said, “Playing for Coach Fitz had been a dream of mine since I was introduced to the game of football. Being able to play in his program has been a blessing and there is not a coach I would rather play for.”
Petrucci retweeted teammate Charlie Mangieri alleging Gragg didn’t take questions from players during a Zoom meeting and wrote, “Handled the meeting about just as good as the whole situation, no surprise there.”
Wheaton Warrenville South’s Jake Arthurs and Jack Olsen, Lemont’s Albert Kunickis III, Glenbard West’s Will Halkyard, Naperville Central’s Reggie Fleurima, Andrews’ Joe DeHaan, Lane Tech’s Jaylen Pate and Lake Zurich’s Hunter Welcing each shared tweets in support of Fitzgerald. Some of the posts retweeted included an alleged statement put together by the players on the team and others’ support of Fitzgerald.
Wheaton North’s Xander Mueller shared a tweet about the alleged Zoom meeting.
Friday Night Drive reached out to McGuire, Petrucci, Arthurs, Olsen and Pate as well as Brother Rice’s Jack Lausch, New Trier’s Duke Olges, St. Charles North’s Carmine Bastone, Lincoln-Way East’s Sean McLaughlin and Joliet Catholic’s Anthony Birsa for comment about the firing and how the university handled its decision and announcement to players. As of this writing, none of the players have responded to that request.
247Sports and Rivals rank the 6-foot-2, 285-pound defensive tackle as a three-star prospect, Rivals listing him as the 16th-best prospect in the state, while 247Sports has him 19th. Johnson finished his junior season with 39 total tackles, five sacks and four tackles for loss. He earned CCL/ESCC Orange Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors as well as all-conference recognition.
Johnson also is one of the most dominant wrestlers in the state. He has won two Class 2A heavyweight state titles and has gone undefeated over the past two seasons. Johnson said he’s going to work with the Wisconsin coaching staff as to whether he can play college football and wrestle.
While Johnson was sad to hear what’s been going on at Northwestern, he’s eager to start his next chapter at Wisconsin.
“I’m excited,” Johnson said. “I’m happy that I’m playing football wherever I go, and I’m happy to be there in Wisconsin.”